It’s two weeks before Christmas so that means It’s a Wonderful Life will be on television soon. In fact, I see NBC is scheduled to broadcast it this Saturday night (Dec.16).
This is one of my favorite films. It is a beautifully-written story presented through the genius of director Frank Capra and first-rate acting from James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Berrymore.
The movie gives us a story that particularly speaks to people like me – American men in mid-life. This is when we wonder if we have made any difference in the world. This is when the burdens of family life can get heavy. This is when we might feel like we are stuck in a rut.
If only we could all have a Clarence -- an angel who could show us what life would be like had we never been born. Most of us are too preoccupied or lack the imagination to do this on our own.
George Bailey saw that the world would be worse off had he never been born. He was on the right track all along. What tremendous affirmation!
George’s life was like the lives of so many men in their 40s and 50s. It is not a glamorous life. There isn’t a lot of money in it. It’s a life where you live with mundane things like a smaller home, an older car, close-to-home vacations, and movies at home instead of nights out at the theater. There’s always the former classmate who went on to become a millionaire or adventurer or big-time politician. They don’t really make us feel any better.
So many of us have big dreams when we are young. I wanted to get rich in international business, traveling between offices in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo. George Bailey wanted something similar. He wanted to build skyscrapers. He ended up helping people build two-bedroom homes in his hometown. I wanted to run a big newspaper; I ended up in niche publications seen by very few people.
It is not easy to transition from youth, when dreams are big and glamorous, to mid-life when reality is important but usual. For some men, it leads to a mid-life crisis. George’s crisis was precipitated by the threat of the loss of his business. Sometimes it takes a crisis to see things clearly. George saw what he really had and how important it really is. With the love of a spouse and a good prayer life, a man can often weather a mid-life crisis, emerging happier than ever.
It’s a Wonderful Life reminds me of another very good movie: Mr. Holland’s Opus, the 1995 film staring Richard Dreyfuss as a high school music teacher. Like George, Glenn Holland has big dreams when he is young. But, commitments to marriage and family tie him to his hometown where the work is mundane if not important. Holland, like Bailey, does what he is supposed to do; he doesn’t get rich in the process. He watches others go off to the big city to make their fortunes. At the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, Holland sees what his decades of teaching has meant a lot of kids who come back to honor him. They are not giving him money, as the friends give Bailey in his crisis, but they affirm the importance of his life’s work.
I suppose all men need affirmation. We want to believe what we are doing is important. These two movies are fantasies where two men get that affirmation. In real life, there may or may not be affirmation; and if there is, it probably won’t be very dramatic. We have to believe in what we are doing, not worry about the success that everyone else seems to be getting, put our lives in the hands of God. It’s a Wonderful Life, after all, is a Christmas movie. It is Jesus Christ who brings meaning to anything we do on this earth.
If you ever wonder about the value of what you are doing, if you ever grumble about the difficulty of living the role of faithful husband and father, I think Christmas is especially for you. The Nativity affirms the unsung. The Nativity is the most humble – the least glamorous – of stories, yet it has the greatest meaning. A baby is born in a barn, among sheep and goats. If our lives are devoted to humble things life spouse and kids, and unglamorous activities, like office work and parish activities, then maybe we are in good company. If the world missed the significance of the birth of Christ, then should we be surprised that it continues to miss the importance of family and typical work?
Christmas is a great time of year and I appreciate the stories that have been created over the years to explain the meaning of the season. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those stories.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
Monday, December 11, 2006
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